Oxytocin: How The "Love Hormone' Bizarrely Affects Men And Women

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couples hugging each other

Oxytocin has long been called the love hormone because of the critical role it plays in attachment, bonding, and plenty of other feel-good moments humans share with one another.

What is oxytocin?

The naturally occurring chemical "is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain."

Like the emotion of love itself, the effects of this powerful hormone can be complicated, and it affects men and women differently in some interesting ways.

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For example, researchers at the University of Haifa found that "in men, it improves the ability to identify competitive relationships whereas in women it facilitates the ability to identify kinship." And on a purely biological level, oxytocin triggers contractions during labor and the release of breastmilk in females, while it helps move sperm in males.

But what does that have to do with your love life?

Oxytocin effects — how the love hormone bizarrely affects men and women:

1. Oxytocin is at least partly to blame for your fear of getting hurt again after a bad breakup.

Have a painful memory of your ex that never seems to go away? One study found that oxytocin may Increase anxiety and fear of stressful events in the future, with the researchers saying the chemical "seems to play a major role in turning a stressful social situation into a long-term, painful emotional memory."

So, when something negative happens, like your relationship ending, oxytocin activates a part of the brain that intensifies and perhaps even prolongs your negative associations with it, increasing the chance it will become a long-term, painful memory and something you'll want to avoid repeating in the future.

2. Oxytocin puts you in the mood.

Along with its ability to improve your mood, oxytocin has been proven to boost sexual arousal.

Scientists at the University of California at San Diego Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry found that married men who sniffed nasal spray containing oxytocin twice a day became more affectionate and experienced several positive effects, including a stronger libido and better "performance."

Naturally, their wives found oxytocin's impact on their husbands to be "very satisfying."

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3. Oxytocin not only makes you fall head over heels in love, but it may also predict whether or not you stay there.

Oxytocin is what connects us to our partners. The chemical accelerates an emotional connection right after a physical one is made.

And not only have researchers from Yale and Bar Ilan University found high levels of oxytocin to be common in both men and women during the first six months of a relationship, but couples who stay together longest are those in which both partners had higher levels of oxytocin during that "initial period of romantic attachment."

So the higher your "love high" at the beginning of a relationship, the better your chances might be that your relationship lasts.

4. Oxytocin continues to strengthen relationships over time.

The bonding hormone has been known to increase trust between partners, making us more generous and keeping us supportive.

The same study mentioned above found that couples with high-oxytocin levels laugh more often, touch each other more frequently and even finish each other's sentences more than those with lower levels of the hormone.

“Oxytocin can elicit loving behaviors," says psychology professor and study author Ruth Feldman, "but giving and receiving these behaviors also promotes the release of oxytocin and leads to more of these behaviors."

5. Oxytocin helps mothers and fathers bond with their children.

The powerful hormone doesn't only play a major role in your romantic love life, it's responsible for aspects of maternal and paternal love, too.

It plays an essential role in helping moms give birth by signaling the uterus to contract, then signals the let down of milk when a baby latches to its mother's breast during breastfeeding.

Over time, oxytocin also facilitates the mother-child (and, yes, the father-child) bond.

Another study out of Bar Ilan University found a strong connection between higher levels of oxytocin and the amount of attention new moms pay to their babies.

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And while their study showed higher levels of oxytocin during the first trimester of pregnancy correlated to "more bonding and affection" after the child's birth, additional research shows oxytocin also plays a powerful role in bonds between infants and adoptive or foster mothers.

Oxytocin plays an especially critical role in the development of premature infants, as skin-to-skin contact between parents and preemies while they are still in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) —sometimes referred to as kangaroo care — has been shown to increase parents' level of engagement with their infants.

6. Oxytocin helps couples resolve conflict.

Several studies have found that higher oxytocin levels can increase empathy and improve our ability to understand one another's emotional states.

Researchers from the University of Oxford found that giving oxytocin nasal spray to couples may have fewer marital conflicts due to effects such as decreased stress levels, increased eye contact, and heightened availability of positive relationship memories.

For similar reasons, oxytocin is being considered a possible means of treatment for conditions such as autism, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, although studies are ongoing and further research is needed.

That said, the study's author notes that therapeutic use of oxytocin nasal spray may come with some negative side effects, such as increased levels of envy and unfriendly behavior towards strangers, so whether or not this becomes a commonly used and acceptable method remains to be seen.

7. Oxytocin makes men more likely to be faithful in monogamous relationships.

Science shows oxytocin may be a primary factor in keeping a man faithful.

Researchers found that men in monogamous relationships keep a greater distance between themselves and attractive female strangers when under the influence of oxytocin, bolstering their hypothesis that the love hormone may act to promote fidelity.

As explained in The Atlantic, male participants who "received oxytocin and who were also in monogamous relationships preferred keeping a significantly greater distance between themselves and [the attractive female stranger]."

And while men in committed relationships "stayed an average of 4 to 6 inches further back than oxytocin-induced singletons or anyone from the placebo group ... This difference was not observed when the subjects were approached by a male researcher (of undetermined attractiveness), and occurred independently of the amount of eye contact made."

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Michelle Toglia is the Deputy Lifestyle Editor at Bustle.